Elizabeth Warren: Stumped

She was supposed to be the Great Liberal Hope, the one Democrat tough enough to evict Scott Brown from Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Then Warren started campaigning.

Warren may have been unwilling to play the Washington game in order to secure the job she wanted, but it’s evident that she’s following the rules during her Senate run. At public events, she sticks to her stump speech and rarely strays from her talking points. That means she only occasionally takes questions from supporters. Despite the fact that Warren owes much of her fame to her role as a media darling, her team limits press access. And Warren’s delivery has become increasingly polished, with her campaign stops rarely looking like the bombastic performances that made her a celebrity. “She’s toned down her rhetoric and style to make herself more palatable,” says Boston University political historian Thomas Whalen. “At this point, she’s talking more in platitudes.”

But playing it safe can take a toll. At an event in Roxbury this April, I watched as the 300 community organizers in the room recoiled when Warren abruptly put down the mike after her speech. They’d been told she would be holding a Q?&?A. As she hugged supporters and took pictures on the far side of the room, a small debate took place on the sidelines, with the local politicians who’d hosted the event telling her staffers that this just isn’t how things are done. (Left unanswered was whether the campaign didn’t know about the anticipated Q?&?A or had decided that Warren simply wasn’t ready for questions.) It felt like a missed opportunity.

The truth is that the supposed most-important Senate race in the country has been surprisingly lacking in substance, with the candidates seemingly less concerned about the state of the country than about debate formats, racial heritage, and whether they’ve held secret meetings with foreign monarchs.

When I ask Doug Rubin, Warren’s campaign guru, about the lack of substance, he takes offense. “I think that’s unfair to Elizabeth, honestly,” he says. “If you go back and look at all the press releases and events we have done, we’ve talked about real issues. Substantive issues. It takes two to engage.”

But her struggles are evident in the poll numbers. Though most surveys show the two locked in a dead heat, the numbers reveal that one of Warren’s key talking points—that a vote for Scott Brown is a vote for Wall Street—isn’t resonating (only a third of voters agree). And Brown has scored much better on the all-important likability factor, with the Globe finding earlier in the race that 52 percent of voters thought he was the more likable candidate, while just 26 percent said it was Warren. (Even Democrats “liked” Brown more by two points.)

Still, it’s not all bad news for Warren. She’s raised more money than Brown, including in the second quarter, when she pulled in $8.6 million to his $5 million (her campaign notes that she brought in $3.1 million in June despite the Native-American controversy). And this is still Massachusetts. Brown may be the incumbent, but this is a heavily Democratic state and it’s expected that a whole lot more Democrats will be turning out to vote in November’s presidential election than did in the 2010 special election Brown won.

Then again, polls show that one quarter of Obama supporters are willing to cast their ballot for Brown. That’s the largest crossover margin of any Senate race in the country. Part of the challenge is that Warren is still learning how to be a candidate. Roger Wolfson, who studied under Warren at Penn and went on to work as a staff attorney for senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Ted Kennedy, says she has “exceptional political instincts, but political instincts and campaign instincts are not the same thing. Politicians’ instincts are: How can I move the ball forward for me and my constituents? Campaign instincts are: How can I stick it to my opponent and avoid being stuck to? I don’t think that comes naturally to her.”

The people behind Warren are hardly neophytes—Rubin, for example, helped orchestrate Governor Patrick’s successful grassroots campaigns—and that’s led to questions about what’s going on with Warren’s candidacy.

“Part of the problem with Warren’s campaign is that they’re kind of desperately trying to find a message that’s going to resonate,” says BU’s Whalen. “It strikes me as an amateur-run operation. And this is no time to be trying to be figuring things out. The whole notion with Elizabeth Warren was that she had a clear set of core ideas that she could sell to the voters of the commonwealth. Now she’s a flawed candidate.”

Democratic political strategist Michael Goldman says the campaign must find a better attack against Brown.“She needs to rewrite the narrative on him,” Goldman says. “Explain why [he’s] opposed to the one percent paying more taxes. She has to force him to explain: ‘Whose water are you carrying?’”

Clearly, though, the Warren camp has decided to scale back the aggression. “She’s playing it straight—the frontrunner’s defensive game,” says Democratic strategist Scott Ferson. But he argues that her campaign should be putting Warren in more authentic, unscripted moments. When you do that, he says, “You run risks, but they’re risks worth running because they make the person a better candidate and ultimately a better elected official. These are people who don’t have to be sheltered. They’re smart people who can take a punch as well as throw one.”